Very mild flu season but watch out for next year, experts say

It has been an “incredibly mild” flu season in Augusta and Georgia, with fewer hospitalizations and no deaths attributed to flu statewide.

The same holds true across the nation as the flu season heads toward its end in May. Experts caution that next year could be much different, though.

As of April 21, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported only 76 hospitalizations and no deaths from influenza this season, compared with 611 hospitalizations and 14 deaths the year before.

“This has been an incredibly mild flu season,” said Dr. James Wilde, a professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Georgia Health Sciences University. “We have had as little as I have ever seen in 20 years-plus of tracking flu.”

“All of our surveillance indicators over this ongoing season have been at relatively low levels all year,” said Dr. Cherie Drenzek, the state epidemiologist with the Department of Health. “I would concur that we have had a very mild flu season, as they go.”

Across the nation, “It has been a relatively mild flu season and it has been a relatively late flu season,” said Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the Influenza Division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s not over yet, but it is certainly declining and declining from a level that wasn’t very high to begin with.”

The influenza viruses circulating in the U.S. have gone virtually unchanged for the past two or three years, which means many people have already been exposed or have been immunized against them, Wilde said.

“We have aggregate immunity temporarily because we have enough people who were infected and therefore not susceptible to getting that infection again, or we have people who were vaccinated,” he said.

There were 132 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine shipped this year, compared with 114 million doses in the 2009-10 season, according to the CDC. They seemed to be offered everywhere, Brammer said.

“There was a lot of vaccine available, and people did a great job of making it easy for people to get vaccinated, I think,” she said.

Although the past two seasons have been mild with fairly stable viruses, it would be “extremely unusual” for that to happen three years in a row, Wilde said. That would likely signal a bad flu season to follow if a virus changes radically, he said.

Predicting what influenza will do, however, is often very difficult, Brammer said.

“A lot of things about flu we don’t understand that well, so you can’t predict if it is going to be a bad season or a good season, even though you know what viruses are out there,” she said. “One year has no predictive value for the upcoming year.”

It is important to get vaccinated against flu every year, to practice good “respiratory etiquette” by covering coughs and sneezes, to wash hands frequently engage in frequent hand-washing and to stay at home when sick, Drenzek said.

“I certainly think that these kinds of tried-and-true core prevention measures can have great impact,” Brammer said.

Even when influenza isn’t circulating, other respiratory viruses can be, Drenzek said.

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